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Study abroad prospects in KSA strong despite shift in focus

Cuts to scholarship funding and economic strain caused by tumbling oil prices have dampened student weeks in UK ELT from Saudi students in the last two years, but student numbers are actually slightly up, and a booming youth population and local labour market needs mean the country still presents huge opportunities.

Photo: UCL Institute of Education

Saudi Arabia ranks 39th out of 40 for its average IELTS scores among Arabic-speaking countries

These were some of the key discussion points coming out of a presentation and panel discussion on opportunities for business in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait at this week’s English UK annual conference.

Stakeholders pointed to tailored accommodation for female students (women-only halls), considered orientation of both host families and Saudis themselves as regards homestay, and strong relationships with agents in-country as key facets of a successful Saudi student strategy.

A new ELT market report on Saudi Arabia has been produced by the British Council and English UK with further reports on other Gulf countries in the pipeline.

Saudi Arabia is currently the UK’s largest non-EU source of international students, but student weeks fell from 123,215 in 2014 to 120,989 in 2015, according to English UK’s most recent figures, published today.

The decline, along with the oil crisis and cuts to the former KASP – now the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques scholarship – have made the market a key talking point in the industry.

However, a modest increase in student numbers (6.2%) in the same year, indicates that demand for UK ELT remains high, noted Matej Damborsky of Carfax Education, which compiled the report.

Incidents such as a student “clicking their fingers at their host mother” had led in the past to families becoming offended

“Seeing that your country’s primary source of income is tanking and your outlook going forward is not the brightest, you are more likely to invest in your child’s education,” commented Damborsky.

He said a shift towards more self-funded students was a high probability, given a new employment-focused approach to scholarship awards.

Employability is now a key driver of demand for overseas ELT provision, found the report, which draws on both secondary data and agent interviews.

Panellists with experience working with the Gulf shared their insights with

Panellists with experience working with the Gulf shared their insights with English UK members

With 72% of locals employed by public services, the government is pushing to increase the number of private sector workers, but few young Saudis have sufficient levels of English proficiency to work in the major international companies operating in the country.

In fact, Saudi Arabia ranks 39th out of 40 for its average IELTS scores among Arabic-speaking countries, said Damborsky.

He said that despite increased spending for education – accounting for around a quarter of the Kingdom’s budget, according to official figures – “educational attainment remains low”.

In order to capitalise on demand, therefore, UK ELT providers should emphasise the factors Saudi students say sets the country apart, the report states: its proximity to Saudi Arabia and its status as the originator of the English language.

They must also be aware of the factors affecting student satisfaction – notably accommodation, given that Saudi students tend to be less price-sensitive but “expect a level of service to match that”, said Damborsky.

Panellists confirmed that accommodation, particularly homestay provision, can be a major selling or sticking point for Saudi students.

Educating host families about the needs of these students is crucial, noted Andrew Edwards, principal at LSI Portsmouth, who said that incidents such as a student “clicking their fingers at their host mother” had led in the past to families becoming offended and not wanting to host Saudi students again.

Edwards suggested that increasing the number of self-catering residences on offer can help to address this, as can approaching local mosques and imams to find English-speaking muslim families who may be more familiar with cultural practices.

And Dr Amina Wakefield, international director at Cambridge Regional College, shared some of her success working in the region. She said that only two of her four annual business trips are “to sell something”, with others dedicated to visiting clients and fostering a strong personal relationship.

“The Gulf States are unique in terms of how they want to do business with us and I think changing the mindset will probably yield more results than going the traditional way of selling education,” she said.

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